Shadow Government

The phony Cuba embargo debate

In recent weeks, an unholy alliance of political activists and economic opportunists have been trying to convince anyone who will listen that the U.S. embargo of Cuba is inviting "catastrophic" damage to Florida by preventing the U.S. from responding to a potential oil spill from a newly launched Cuban rig just outside U.S. waters. The claim is without merit.

The impetus for this contrived argument is that in late January, the Spanish oil company Repsol began exploratory drilling in Cuban waters -- 80 nautical miles from the Florida Keys -- using a Chinese-made rig owned by an Italian company.

The fact is, under current U.S. policy, any U.S. President has broad authorities to ensure all U.S. resources and expertise can be deployed in case of a disaster off the southeastern U.S. coast. And all indications are the administration has moved expeditiously -- with lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico -- to plan a U.S. response -- with no changes needed in U.S. law.

Yet, that has not stopped the doomsday scenarios.  For example, according to one alarmist analysis, in case of an accident:

"The Coast Guard would be barred from deploying highly experienced manpower, specially designed booms, skimming equipment and vessels, and dispersants. U.S. offshore gas and oil companies would also be barred from using well-capping stacks, remotely operated submersibles, and other vital technologies."

The arguments, frankly, are a hash of half-truths and erroneous and contradictory statements about the U.S. embargo.  For example, we are told the U.S. embargo prevents interaction between the U.S. and Cuban officials to discuss response scenarios, only to learn that they already are interacting. Meetings between U.S. and Cuban officials (and those from Bahamas, Jamaica, and Mexico) have already taken place under the auspices of the U.N. International Maritime Organization.

Then there is the ludicrous scenario posited of vintage Cuban crop dusters being forced into action because the embargo allegedly would prevent U.S. aircraft from dropping oil dispersants.  Nonsense.

In addition, there is the de rigueur clumsy caricature of pro-embargo Cuban Americans, who "might protest any decision allowing U.S. federal agencies to assist Cuba or letting U.S. companies operate in Cuban territory." This seems not to be aware that most Cuban Americans live in South Florida and would have a decided interest in any despoiling of the state's environment. They would hardly be averse to any U.S. mobilization to counter a spill. What they do justifiably object to is any exploitation of the situation for political ends.

Indeed, a particularly egregious example of the politicization of the issue has been the involvement of the Environmental Defense Fund, which has been positively sanguine about Cuban oil drilling. A powerful lobby able to mobilize hundreds of activists to oppose U.S. offshore drilling, they have been leading advocates of across-the-board U.S. cooperation with Cuba on offshore oil drilling, despite the latter's woeful inexperience and dearth of capabilities in offshore oil drilling. In this, they have been aided and abetted by assorted U.S. oil services companies who have been misrepresenting U.S. policy in a misguided attempt to create economic opportunity.

In the end, the likelihood that Cuba possesses any commercially viable oil reserves off its shores is dubious. And, in the unlikely event that it does discover any, it's probable that they will be exploitable only after the Castro regime passes into the dustbin of history.  In the meantime, however, allowing Cuba anywhere near a deepwater platform is akin to handing a hand-grenade to a monkey. The Obama administration could have done better by strong-arming foreign companies from partnering with the Castro brothers on this project. But they appear to have a handle on cleaning up any attendant mess -- without any superfluous changes to U.S. policy towards the Castro dictatorship.

ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Politics as policy

Michele Flournoy’s extravagant campaign spin on the president’s foreign policy is politics, not policy, which inclines me against replying. But the outsize claims the campaign is attempting to peddle that America is “more secure, safer and more respected” deserve to be tested. The president's record is not nearly as good as this campaign puffery suggests, nor is it as thoroughly bad as his most boisterous critics claim, in part because the Pentagon has been effective in shaping policy on the war in Afghanistan and other key areas. Some of the credit for that is due to Michele herself, who handled her portfolio is a creditable way. But Michele Flournoy the policymaker is much more credible than Flournoy the campaign spinner.

First and foremost, it merits remembering that the counter-terrorism policies that made America safer are almost in their entirety policies that Barack Obama opposed in the Senate and campaigned against when running for president: long-term detention of terrorists, trial by military tribunal, support for the Patriot Act, Executive Authority to kill American citizens engaged in terrorism. Where he sought to change those policies, such as closing Guantanamo or prosecuting intelligence agents for torture, he was prevented by the Congress from doing so.

Second, the administration’s claim of the president’s unique courage in approving the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed is deeply unfair to President Bush. Can they really believe their predecessor, who bears the scars of having been in command during the attacks of September 11th, would not have made the same decision? It is uncharitable in the extreme, especially for a politician who claimed he would return civility to our public life.

Third, the campaign narrative on Iraq is dishonest. The president did not conduct a responsible withdrawal from Iraq; he conducted a retreat in place. By setting an arbitrary end to combat operations in August of 2010, he conveyed to Iraqis we were no longer committed to the objectives for which we were fighting the war -- as his withdrawal timelines have also done in Afghanistan. Far from “crafting a responsible plan to leave Iraq in the hands of its people,” he crafted a scenario in which Prime Minister Maliki had both the means and motive for seizing power and the non-sectarian future Iraqis had voted for fractured. The president also crafted an expensive and wholly implausible civilian mission that is already crumbling.

Fourth, the president reluctantly joined, he did not lead, the international coalition in Libya. Germany defends it’s refusal to participate in the mission on the grounds that their position was shared by the Obama administration two days before the vote. Instead of setting our allies up to be successful where they would take military action in our interest, the Obama administration only grudgingly supplied them enough help so they would not fail. That President Obama is taking such credit for Libya is resented, not respected.

Michele Flournoy makes it sound as though “fiery Republicans” are the only people who could object to her self-serving narrative of the president’s achievements. But her claims are actually testable propositions. Let’s take one of the president’s favorite metrics: American popularity in the so-called Muslim world. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, President Obama’s policies have caused our country to be more disliked in Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia; and considered unreliable by Israel, and Europe. Only 8 percent of Pakistanis have confidence in President Obama to do the right thing, not surprising given the wild swings of policy toward Pakistan.

There are many more ways President Obama’s national security policies have either failed (trade policy) or are the continuation of previous administrations (the pivot to Asia, after all, mostly consists of accepting Bush administration trade agreements and multilateralism policies in Asia). And that's not even counting the colossal increase in our national debt that the president has piled up. But the most damaging effect of the president’s tenure is the divisiveness he has sowed in our body politic.

It didn’t have to be this way. A better president could have built bipartisan support for his policies. A better president could have worked with Congress to solve our country’s pressing problems. A better president could have graciously acknowledged where he built on the policies of its predecessors, reminding Americans of our broad agreement on most national security issues. Our country deserves such a president.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images